Iraq's Odious Debts

U.N. and Congress in dispute over Iraq oil-for-food inquiries

Judith Miller
The New York Times
July 28, 2004

Congressional committees investigating allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the United Nations oil-for-food program in Iraq are at odds with the organization’s own inquiry over access to records and personnel, legislators and United Nations officials said yesterday.

The officials and diplomats said that in meetings in Washington on July 13, Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve who is leading the United Nations’ internal investigation, rejected requests from members of Congress for access to review documents and to interview United Nations officials being scrutinized by his panel.

“He wants us to do nothing now while he does what he can, by persuasion, since his panel can’t fire or subpoena anyone,” said Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, who attended one of the meetings. “But we will press on.”

Meanwhile, the House International Relations Committee stepped up its efforts to obtain documents related to the relief program by issuing a subpoena on Friday for financial records from the French bank BNP Paribas. Two other Congressional committees have issued subpoenas to the bank, which managed billions of dollars in oil revenues intended for relief aid through the program.

Neither Representative Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House panel, nor his staff would disclose what the subpoena specifically requests from Paribas. Robert S. Bennett, a lawyer representing the bank, said it was not a target or the focus of the inquiries into the aid program. “We are going to fully cooperate with the committees,” Mr. Bennett said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

In addition to Mr. Volcker’s panel, which is expected to issue an interim report in August, at least six Congressional panels, the Treasury Department, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and the Manhattan district attorney are investigating the program. It was established in 1996 to allow Iraq to sell oil and use proceeds to purchase food, medicine and other relief goods, and it became the world’s largest relief program. Congressional investigators have concluded that Saddam Hussein skimmed about $10 billion from the oil profits, and there have been allegations of possible misdeeds by United Nations officials.

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, said he had met with Mr. Volcker to try to reach an agreement on sharing information, but he said Mr. Volcker was unwilling to do so until his own panel had finished reviewing the information.

“I argued that our inquiry would benefit his, because his panel does not have subpoena power,” Senator Ensign said. “But they’re completely unwilling to do that.”

Mr. Volcker was traveling and could not be reached for comment. But Reid Morden, the executive director of the United Nations panel investigating the program, said the Volcker panel would share information only after its own review was completed. Mr. Morden said that since the investigation “could have a serious impact on both the organization and individuals working there, I think it’s very important that the inquiry conduct itself with the utmost respect for due process.”

Mr. Volcker’s panel is focusing its initial efforts on allegations that United Nations officials benefited illegally from the program. Mr. Morden said there was no timeline for when the United Nations inquiry would be done.

Mr. Hyde said Mr. Volcker’s inquiry must determine how the relief program “degenerated into the corrupt morass that it had become by 2003 and learn whether or not that corruption reached into the upper ranks of the U.N. Secretariat.” But he said his committee’s investigation would “continue to make inquiries” while the United Nations investigation was under way.

Senator Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the Permanent Investigations subcommittee that issued one of the Paribas subpoenas, said the United Nations would be making “an unfortunate mistake not to cooperate with the U.S. Congress.”

“We fund 25 percent of the U.N.’s general operating budget, not counting peacekeeping,” Mr. Coleman said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s